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It seems right that the man who played Dirty Harry – along with many other flawed lawmen over the course of his long career – would now, in his ridiculously productive twilight, turn his attention to the legacy of America's top cop, J. Edgar Hoover, played with great virtuosity by Leonardo DiCaprio. Biographical material looms large throughout Clint Eastwood’s directing career, but it is rarely the biopic per se that is the focus of his interest. Eastwood is always more interested in the institutions and cultural influences that shape the real human beings he depicts in his directorial efforts (see Invictus, Changeling, Bird, and White Hunter Black Heart for examples). From the get-go in J. Edgar, Eastwood provides us with an unreliable narrator as we find Hoover dictating his life story to the first of an ongoing stream of typists/authors. It’s a conventional narrative device, but it serves the purpose of letting us know that this is the portrait of the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation as he wanted himself to be seen.
What he wanted the public to know was that he was our staunchest defender against Communists, Bolsheviks, and others who conspired to bring down the U.S. government. They were a disease that he believed would metastasize and posed a threat greater than all the bank robbers the bureau made its bones catching in the Thirties and the mobsters that then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy forced him to chase in the Sixties. And in large measure this was true until Hoover’s perspective grew so warped that he was seeking out the Communists in Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil-disobedience movement and using the long arm of the law to strong-arm those who campaigned for civil rights and other progressive causes. For all the good Hoover accomplished in bringing the bureau into the modern age of forensics by using scrupulous scientific methods and establishing a national database of fingerprints, the man was also undone by his bigotry, secrecy, narrow-minded dogma, and unbridled power to ruin lives. Eastwood gives us both sides of this figure – a portrait of a full human being and not just as the butt of an unfounded joke about closeted transvestites – as he is probably best known to the generation born after his death in 1972, who did not experience his near-50-year reign over national law enforcement.
Scripted by Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for his Milk screenplay, J. Edgar obviously comes from a place that is interested in the conflicted lives of closeted gay men, yet, this rumored aspect of Hoover’s life is handled with the utmost tact and restraint. Rather than pursuing the lurid whispers about Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, who played both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), Black and Eastwood create a believable relationship that’s platonic though gratifying between two men who took all their meals and vacations together though didn't share their bed. Indeed, this Hoover seems predominantly asexual, though a faint glimmer of desire might be discerned in Tolson. DiCaprio and Hammer display these aspects of their characters brilliantly; possibility lies just under the surface but always in accordance with proper behavior. As Mother Hoover, Judi Dench provides the real motivating demon in her son’s psyche. She is never more terrifying than when she admonishes her offspring she won’t abide a “daffodil” for a son. Yet the character seems rather underwritten for so primal a force.
Filmed primarily in desaturated colors and oblique shadows, the look of J. Edgar is spot-on. The time frame jumps around, spanning decades in a single leap, but it doesn’t strain the structure. Eastwood and DiCaprio have delivered a nuanced story about a man, a mythos, and an institution that relies on the facts rather than the legend.